John and I were relieved to be greeting Martin and Mary in blue sky and sunshine at Valladolid airport as the weather had been pretty wet and "dreak" up until then for several days. The temperature was 9'C and we were all keen to get en route. Both keen bird watchers, Martin was the one to spot our first bird of the trip; a Kestrel in the airport car park. Well done, Martin! This boded well for future sightings!
After lunch we were already getting a little blase' about watching a couple of Black Kites (!) when Martin displayed his sharp hearing, noting the sound of Corn Bunting on the road to Villafafila. During our detour to Tapioles where we spied Barn Swallows, Goldfinches and White Stork we encountered our first shepherd out with his flock, donkey and essentially his Mastin dogs. This was an excellent opportunity to discuss the various methods of livestock farming and how the different cultures have coped with the presence of predators throughout time Later in our tour, we were to encounter a couple of smaller, but more feisty dogs protecting their cattle herd near Flechas, even to the point of running after our car at 45kmh! We declined to get out of our vehicle on that occasion.
Along the road to Villafafila, we enjoyed another excellent sight of a female Montague's Harrier hunting alongside the road whilst a male Great Bustard was displaying to several females, beneath a stunning marsh harrier in the sky. All this to the sound of a Skylark.
A`little further along...I defy anyone to travel this road without several stops!..we spent time watching a couple of Marsh Harriers and a Kestrel in the air, along with Barn Swallow, above a male Great Bustard lekking intently for the attention of 6 singularly unimpressed females This to the sound of Corn Bunting. As eyes left were directed towards a male Montague's Harrier, 2 Kestrels and a flock of about 23 Greylag Geese which landed in the open spaces, eyes right were watching about 46 Great Bustards on the ground and 11 in flight over local barns.
The sky was looking threatening when Martin told us of an adage from his local area. Seemingly, if you can stand on 7 daisies at once, it is summer. I found my patch of daisies and duly placed my size 5. Needless to say, there was no great improvement on the weather scene, but perhaps that was down to my initial scepticism.
Going down towards the bridge at Rio Esla, Northern Wheatear was seen amongst the holm oaks, and at the bridge site we saw Sand Martin, Crag Martin, Jackdaw, Mallard, Black Redstart, Pale-phased Booted Eagle, Common Sandpiper and White Wagtail, to the sound of Chetti's Warbler.
A Red Kite flew over the road to Tabara along with a good sight of Mistle Thrush. A Common Buzzard was perched on a sign just before Otero de Bodas. Whenever we drive along the road to Ferreras we really feel we are in wolf country and senses are sharpened as they have been seen at all times of day.(Not very often, but at all times!)
After a revitalising coffee at Villardeciervos, we entered San Pedro to see 2 Jays, Common Redstart and Linnet, plus plenty of Honey and Bumble Bees on the blossom.
At 19:15 with the air a balmy 12'C we began our first wolfwatch near Villardeciervos. Spotting Greenfinch and Curlew on the way,and having almost to avoid a Black Kite feeding on the highway, we set up our scopes and took in the view with long, relaxing breaths. As the Cuckoos, Crossbills and Iberian Green Woodpecker created memorable sound effects, Mary's hopes were raised by a good view of a Fox. Much browner than our British fox, everyone has tales of misidentification between fox and wolf, but once you have seen a wolf...there is never any misdiagnosis again. Fox is interesting...Wolf is incredible! Two birds to become a regular part of our life this tour made themselves known to us early that evening; Dartford Warbler and Hen Harrier. Several Stags, Hinds and 1 Roe Deer completed the observations and we packed up as the light began to fade at 21:00, ready for our excellent meal of scrambled eggs with spring onion, followed by steak with asparagus salad and rounded off with yoghurt sweet. A highlight of the stay, particularly for younger visitors, was the regular evening visit of a wary young vixen which would respond to Antonio's whistle and approach to receive food, sometimes from the hand. A beautiful creature which displayed to me the characteristics that emerge in some individuals of most species whereby the desire for food is weighed against natural wariness and the great divide is breached. Not universally popular in the village, it is a treat to see the growing relationship between this truly wild creature and humans. We looked forward to this moment each evening and were never disappointed.
What a full day! Stansted Airport check in seemed a long time ago to Martin and Mary!
Friday 13th April
0'C Frost on the windscreen when we met at 07:15 and the gauge dropped to -2'C as we listened to Tawny Owls, a Robin and a Black Redstart on the roof of our hotel. That cheery Black Redstart was to be there each morning and evening during our stay.
Our day was spent walking along tracks looking for signs of wolf which would direct our week's wolfwatching. At La Piste, we heard Cuckoo and noted how high the heather was; not ideal for long views of our target species. The Villardeciervos track gleaned better results, with wolf scat of varying degrees of freshness, with some very fresh indeed, and fresh tracks. It was a pleasant walk in the sunshine, with a male and female Stonechat, 2 Dartford Warblers, 2 Iberian Green Woodpeckers and a Booted Eagle all putting in an appearance.
By 19:30 when we arrived at our place for the evening's watch, there was a chill wind blowing and although we enjoyed seeing a Common Buzzard very close to us along the track and more than twenty Red Deer, we gave up at 21:00 as it was just too cold and windy. We had seen a Dartford Warbler, which is a regular to La Piste watchers and shows well, and heard Cuckoo throughout, but were quite relieved to get into the relative shelter of San Pedro and to wish "Good Evening" to our regular Black Redstart atop the chimneystack.
Dinner was home-made marrow soup, fish in rose-marie sauce followed by fresh fruit or flan (creme caramel) with red wine and water. Much appreciated Antonio!
Saturday 14th April.
Our tracking activities after breakfast were concentrated upon Boya, as there has been significant wolf activity there in the past, but we drew a blank here on that score. We had good sights of Carrion Crow, Jay, Cuckoo, Crossbill,with a red Deer crossing the road ahead of us. We enjoyed sights of Wren outside the hotel and a Chaffinch on the wire nearby. Martin and Mary were particularly delighted to find a Short-toed Treecreeper on their window ledge, and to discover later that it was carrying nesting material into this niche. (Room 9 if anyone wants to check up on this at close quarters!).
Sunday 15th April.
Alcanices was our lunch destination and we saw a Stork frogging as we entered the small town. After a tortilla and iberico ham we marvelled at the straight, empty road which reminded us of roads on the USA. At Riomanzanas, we were pleased to meet old resident of the village, Francisco, who at nearly 90 years old was pushing his wheelbarrow of hay towards his home to feed his cattle which live beneath his quarters. Birdwise, we saw White Stork, Crow, Southern Grey Shrike, Spotless Starling, White Wagtail, Rock Bunting and Iberian Chiffchaff by the river. The return journey gleaned Mallard at Mahide and Red Kite.
Monday 16th April.
At 07:15 with a clear, cool -3'C, with the background symphony of yaffle, drumming and cuckooing, our morning wolfwatch began immediately with a close crystal-clear view of a Fox mousing in the static, frosty grass nearby. The statuesque quality of 3 Red Deer nearby mirrored the lack of wind to the morning, and we felt excited and invigorated. After watching Wood Pigeon, we enjoyed seeing Crested Tit displaying in the increasing sunshine in front of several Roe Deer. However, the distracted running in various directions of 6 Red Deer caught our attention and we were intent on finding the cause of such erratic behaviour. At 08:20 we found the cause....WOLF!
Loping across the low vegetation in the valley , the wolf was clearly visible in John's telescope. Martin got a view then managed to get it in his own scope, and Mary watched for a while in John's telescope as the magnificent predator was lost to view for a short while amongst trees then reached the track eventually to enter the wooded hillside behind. Perpetually on the move, it is difficult to get everyone onto such a creature in time, so we were delighted that we had all enjoyed a good view. Several times in the past we have had a single lone wolf at this site We believe it may have broken away from the main pack as we have also previously seen a pack of three individuals on the same territory, with this lone individual showing up an hour or so later.
We felt relaxed now, watching the skydancing of the male and female Hen Harriers which we felt we had got to know over our hours in watch here, and were later enjoying 2 Dartford Warblers in the stronger sunshine, when their sudden disappearance heralded ....Sparrowhawk. There was now a dearth of avian life , understandably, but we could appreciate the tip-top condition of the 2 Roe Deer who grazed nearby, ever watchful to keep their flight distance from us.
We set off at 10:35 for Portugal, the Gorge de Douro in particular, and our first Portuguese bird was a beautiful male Montague's Harrier in flight by the road. This was followed by a White Stork, Chaffinch and Jay.
The Vale de Aguia never fails to amaze on the grandeur scale, but although very interesting, it was lacking in raptors and migrants on this occasion. The hot weather we enjoyed today had not been a habit recently and the cold, north-easterly/northerly winds were delaying the appearance of several migrant species. We heard a Hoopoe and saw House Martin, White Wagtail and marvelled at the goldenball dive of a Golden Eagle against the azure sky.
We had some excellent sights of Griffon Vultures in effortless flight with the sun on their wings at Fariza, plus Serins, Mistle Thrush, Goldfinch, Rock Bunting, Blackbird, Dartford Warbler, Red-Billed Chough and Golden Eagle displaying above us. The declineof a former raging waterfall to a red, algae filled pool amongst the rocks at this viewpoint underlined the lack of water in this area.
Our return journey garnered Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel, Collared Dove, Cormorant, Hoopoe, Buzzard, Montague's Harrier, Carrion Crow, Southern Grey Shrike and White Stork. Returning through Miranda du Douro Martin spotted Egyptian Vulture on the rocks just by our lunch stop.
A friendly little Dunnock kept fairly constant watch on us as we spent our evening's watch at La Piste, where we had Hen Harrier in flight, Rock Thrush and several Red Deer, including a Stag with only one antler. We were tired after our exciting day, and were ready for sleep after an excellent meal of cauliflower soup, albondigas and yogurt dessert with Culebra honey. It had been a full and rewarding day for us all.
Tuesday 17th April
07:30 3'C Martin and Mary had seen their wolf...but they were hungry for better views!! Such a feeling is totally natural as the wolf allows us glimpses, after which you are hooked. You want then a photo, or video, then wolf in family group...such is the magnetism of the species it always leaves you wanting more and better. There was no frost this morning and the Black Redstart greeted us with gusto. On the way to the Villardeciervos site, we spotted Stonechat and the clouds cleared by 08:15 displaying clear, blue sky and excellent light quality. The Sub-Alpine Warbler was harassing us from behind, and as Wood Pigeon flew by, we watched Dartford Warbler posing atop an oak sapling. After looking at Robin, Linnet and Crossbill we were pleased to notice the male Hen Harrier flying at 08:50. Ten minutes later, two Roe Deer ambled into our close view. It was such a relaxing, calm place, it must do the blood pressure good just to breathe in this atmosphere!
Noticing Rock Bunting and Crossbill aplenty on our way back to breakfast, we had some free time in the village to enjoy watching two Peregrine Falcons in display flight, Black Kite, female Blackcap and the Short-toed Treecreeper carrying nesting material into Martin and Mary's wall. The drive along La Piste towards the old village of Linarejos had some very obliging Coal Tit, Crossbill, Dunnock, Stonechat, Dartford Warbler views and we heard Crested Tit. Five Ravens were in tumbling flight over the crags as we entered Villarino de Manzanas to see Iberian Green Woodpecker, Blackbird, Spotless Starling, Chaffinch, Serin and Kestrel. We saw Sandmartin at Cional before stopping for lunch at Villardeciervos.
At our tracking walk near Boya that afternoon, Mary disturbed a young Toad and spotted some fresh Wild Boar tracks. We determined to walk the track where we had seen the wolf yesterday. We saw fresh Wolf and Badger tracks with Fox scat, but the track conditions were not ideal for leaving evidence. Two lovely little Dartford Warblers, Crested Lark, male Hen Harrier, Stonechat, Tawny Pipit and Barn Swallow were our total for this walk.
After some free time back at San Pedro, we set off for our evening watch at Villardeciervos. This was to be quite a quiet affair, although the presence of a Raven signalled a possibility of some potential wolf presence. The male Hen Harrier was sitting aground for some time; was he guarding his nest against the Raven? He also seemed to be eating something. A lone Mallard flew by and there was eventually a small amount of Red and Roe Deer presence but as Mary said," It felt like your garden with that hiatus just before the Sparrowhawk flies in". Certainly, there was an air of expectancy throughout the whole area that night. We had a Pipistrelle Bat on our return to dinner (carrot soup, egg mornay and creme caramel) and during a night drive, we had close sights of Stag and Roe Deer.
Wednesday 18th April.
That Black Redstart will be missed when it's an alarm clock jangle waking us up next week! Still on the chimneystack and singing away at 07:18 in 3'C. The chill wind made it feel cooler however, and this had been the case for much of this week. Obviously many of the migrants expected by this week were also thinking the same. We disturbed two Stags just as we were leaving San Pedro and as expected , the Dartford Warbler was in place as we set up at our Villardeciervos site. There was low mist over the hills but general visibility was not unduly hampered as we took in the Hen Harriers hovering together until the female landed in a nearby small tree and the male flew off. However, it was all still quite quiet, with only two Roe Deer grazing in separate places, one Red Deer looking very alert and a good view of a Wren. The presence of two Carrion Crows, one of which went down and seemed to be picking at something (meat?), combined with our Raven sighting last night did seem to suggest that there had been some predatory activity there and everything was still very wary. One of the advantages of becoming very well acquainted with a particular sight is that you get very responsive to its atmosphere, and we all picked up on that here. We drove up along the forest road for clues as to the behaviour change, and saw fresh wolf scat, but mist hampered our long range viewing.
After breakfast, we had a stroll along the tracks at the back of San Pedro, and as well as seeing old wolf scat, fresh fox scat (Antonio's little friend again?), and a brave Grasshopper in the cool conditions, we spent some time in an oasis of bird activity listening to Firecrest, Chetti's Warbler, Subalpine Warbler and Skylark. We saw Blue Tit, Great Tit, Crested Tit and Chaffinch.
No Bee-eaters had made it to La Playa yet, held back by unseasonably bad weather, but we watched about 60 Spotless Starlings in faultless flight and some wind-battered Mallards braving it on a choppy Rio Tera. A Stonechat was trying to display despite the wind, and a stronger Montague's Harrier was making more of a success of his effort.
Our last wolfwatch was really an assortment of sites, as we were at the mercy of decreasing weather conditions. The chill wind had persisted throughout the day and apart from the Hen Harriers, and two Dartford Warblers, nothing was happening at the Villardeciervos site. We decamped to La Piste, but aborted efforts to watch as rain increased. Our views that evening were not going to be impressive, but it was somewhat atmospheric sitting below the brooding skyline at the imposing site at Flechas, until we decided to give up. In pouring rain, feeling not a little chilly, we were quiet in the car on our return journey, but our mood was lightened when we saw by the roadside a Roe Deer with only one antler!
We certainly appreciated Antonio's home-made marrow soup, porkchop with chips and what I think should be the house speciality, lemon mousse.
Thursday 19th April.
A beautiful, clear day, with no wind and excellent light, which made our journey to the airport very fruitful and showed the countryside at its best. After saying our "Farewells" to Antonio junior, and Antonio brother-in-law, and also to Antonio senior ??!!, we set off after breakfast at 08:11 seeing Song Thrush, Jay, Stonechat, Spotless Starlings, Kestrel, Collared Dove and Crested Lark with ease. At the Rio Esla bridge, in bright sunshine, we greeted a pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago and spotted Blue Rock Thrush, Crag Martin, Barn Swallow, Blue Tit, Rock Sparrow, House Sparrow and the ubiquitous Mallard to the sound of Cuckoo. Would this be our last sound of the bird now rarely heard in the UK we wondered?
Mary had wanted to see "lekking Bustards" and the journey upon her arrival had been excellent for these. It gave a finality to our trip when we saw the same behaviour on our return trip with about thirty of these huge birds displaying and flying over our road, showing their huge wingspan. We also spotted Northern Wheatear, Carrion Crow,Common Buzzard, White Stork, Kestrel, Lesser Kestrel, Magpie, Corn Bunting, Grey Heron, Crested Lark, Yellowhammer, Montague's Harrier and Iberian Hare. We heard the song of the Skylark, once such a feature of our summers in Britain, but once again, we felt the same concern as we had done twenty minutes earlier for the cuckoo. And all this within a short distance from the airport!
In conclusion, I am reminded of an excellent book "Dreaming of Wolves" by Alan E.Sparks which charts Alan's life with wolves in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. In it he mentions :-
"it's extremely rare to see wild wolves here in the dense forests of Transylvania (project personnel working in the field rarely do)..."
"Thanks for a great holiday, we really enjoyed the opportunity to see the area and the wildlife, and of course our single view of a Wolf!" Mary. April 2012.
"It was great to read your trip report and relive the holiday. We fitted in such a lot". Martin